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Tripoli 21.04.2014 
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The mystery of silphium in Cyrene

The mystery of silphium in Cyrene


Herbal Contraception in Ancient Cyrene

Herbal Contraception in Ancient Cyrene


A twenty five hundred year old Cyrenian coin bears a puzzling image. A regal woman sits on a chair, touching a plant with one hand. Her other hand points to her genitals. To the uninitiated the meaning of the picture might range from the unfathomable to the slightly "kinky." To the ancient peoples who saw this coin and circulated it in their daily commerce, the images were crystal clear. The plant, called silphion by the Greeks and silphium by the Romans, was one of those most valuable in the ancient world and the woman's presence provides a frank, if demure, reminder of why. Silphium, was an herbal morning-after pill, readily available to our ancestors a hundred generations ago.

In the seventh century BC, Greek colonists established the city of Cyrene on the Libyan coast. Shortly after their arrival, wrote the Greek botanist Theophrastus (ca. 370-288 BC), they discovered silphium -- the plant that would make them rich and the city famous. A member of the genus Feula, (commonly known as giant fennel), a large group of plants with deeply divided leaves and yellow flowers, the pungent sap from silphium's stems and roots was used in cough syrups. It also gave food a rich distinctive taste when used as an additive. Of far greater importance was its value as a birth control agent.


Contraceptive and Abortive

Contemporary medical authorities were universal in their praise for silphium's value as a contraceptive. The Roman physician Soranus, antiquity's foremost gynecologist, wrote that women should drink the juice from an amount of silphium about the size of a chick pea, with water, once a month since "it not only prevents conception but also destroys anything existing." The herbalist and pharmacist, Dioscorides, author of Materia Medica, recommended silphium for contraceptive and abortive purposes. Attempts to cultivate silphium in Greece and Syria failed and by the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder reported in Natural History that silphium was worth more than its weight in silver and that "only a single stalk had been found in Cyrene within our memory." By the second century it was extinct.


Anecdotal references to the plant's value as a birth control agent is also found in contemporary non-medical literature. The first century BC Roman poet Catullus wondered how many "kisses" he and his girlfriend Lesbia might enjoy. The answer -- "as many grains of sand as there are on Cyrene's silphium shores." The fifth century BC Athenian playwright Aristophanes mentions it in one of his bawdy comedies, The Knights.

Within a few centuries the supply of silphium was nearly gone. The plant only grew in a band about 125 miles long and 30 miles wide on the Libyan mountainsides facing the Mediterranean Sea.

 
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Sherwes Travel • P.O. Box 91713 Dath El Emad • Tripoli • Libya • Tel/fax: +218-21-4801370 • Cellphone: +218-925201677
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